Build the PC of your dreams... for only about $10,000
July 16, 1998
by Steve Bass
(IDG) -- I spent a day helping a buddy upgrade his old clunker into a 333-MHz fire-breather. Big mistake. It made me realize how incredibly slow my ancient 133-MHz Pentium system had become. And how badly I wanted--no, needed--something faster. "It'll help me write a better column," I said to my wife, Judy, rationalizing like crazy.
I decided to build my dream system from scratch. This was going to be fun: Custom-build a mid-1998, no-limits screamer system; see what it can do; and expense it to PC World. Listen, I could think of worse things to do.
Well, hold onto your hats, folks, because I plunked down over $4600, not including $6000 for a very pricey monitor. Could I have done as well with a stock machine from Dell? Hang on a sec.
First on the list--Intel's 400-MHz Pentium II processor. The thing's blazingly fast, leap-frogging the 333-MHz chip by 21 percent. More important, Intel's breakthrough 100-MHz 440BX chip set moves data 50 percent faster than the old 66-MHz boards. I could manipulate 2MB Photoshop files on the new machine so fast it brought tears to my eyes.
I chose an Intel SE440BX motherboard because of its guaranteed compatibility with the processor. The cost? At press time, roughly $800 to $900 for the processor and $215 for the system board, at street prices. Check Tom's Hardware Guide for a wealth of motherboard info.
I hit one snag: I tried using whatever memory I had lying around. The new BX system board had a hearty laugh--the old memory was far too slow. I needed superfast, 100-MHz synchronous dynamic RAM (SDRAM). Luckily, Crucial Technology's Web site clarified my memory requirements. Two 32MB DIMMs (about $80 each) did the trick.
My pick for a video card was ATI's $322 8MB AGP-bus All-in-Wonder Pro. The card has everything I need: 2D graphics, 3D acceleration (perfect for Quake II), built-in video capturing, a TVTuner, and support for a DVD card.
With all this display power, I couldn't use anything less than a huge monitor. Besides, I wanted to splurge. So I cajoled NEC into letting me try its $5999 MultiSync LCD2000 monitor. Despite having a 20.1-inch viewable area, the LCD2000 is slim and svelte--8 inches deep and 22 pounds. Don't worry about the LCD image: It's stunning. The color is rich and the picture is crisp from any angle.
I needed a DVD drive, and Creative Labs' $299 PC-DVD Encore Dxr2 fit the bill. It reads DVD- and CD-ROMs, and its MPEG decoder interface connected seamlessly to the ATI video card. Granted, not many DVD titles are available yet. But the one I tried--Wing Commander IV--jolted me out of my seat it was so realistic. Images are far sharper than those in regular games, and the DVD movie I rented looked distinctly better than the videotape version.
On the sound front, I matched Creative Labs' AWE64 Gold card ($149) with a set of the company's audiophile-quality MicroWorks speakers ($250). Quake II's creatures reverberated in the room with me, and my jazz CDs sounded magnificent, better even than on my home stereo system.
Finally, I needed hard drive space--and a lot of it. Last year I was happy with 4GB, but now I'm cranking out space-hogging audio and video files (maybe an MTV music special: Bass Unplugged), so in went Seagate's Cheetah ST18202, an 18GB Ultra2 SCSI drive priced at $1795. Spinning at 10,000 rpm with a brisk 5.7-millisecond seek time, the lightning-fast Cheetah needs a pair of 6-inch bolts to hold it down. I connected the hard drive to Adaptec's AHA 940U2W SCSI controller, which can transfer data at rates of up to 80MB per second--two to four times the speed of other SCSI controllers.
Okay, it's a perfect system (too bad I have to send it all back now). But I'll tell you what: For about $3700, I could have done just as well--and maybe even better--with a Dell Dimension XPS R400. The Dell comes with more memory, a modem, and a 19-inch monitor. But would I build my own system again? You bet. Even on my own nickel.
Contributing Editor Steve Bass is president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group.
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